Understanding Tenses

In this lesson you’ll learn how tenses add meaning to verbs and how these meaning can be combined in complex verb constructions. 

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Lesson: How to Understand English Tenses

What English Tenses Are

The word “tense” is used to talk about the ways that people change “verbs forms” and “add other verbs” to them to “mean” things about:

1) when they happen, and
2) who or what does them (their subject) or who or what they are done to (their objects)

speak” in the sentence Julia “speaks” English, for example, we “mean” that:

1) this is now (present tense), and
2) the who or what is only one and is someone or something besides you or me (third person singular).

How English tenses work

The most important things to understand about tenses in English are:

1) that they each have one eternal, universal meaning, and
2) we can add them together to mean lots of things at once.

There are six base tenses:

1) the present
2) the past
3) the future
4) the perfect
5) the continuous
6) the passive

The only two of these that we can’t add together with one other are the present and the past. We can combine the rest to mean as many of the things that each of them mean individually as we want at once.

How to use English tenses correctly

The best way to understand how to use English tenses right is to:

1) understand what the tenses really mean always,
2) use them when you want to mean what they mean, and
3) not use them when you don’t want to mean what they mean.

It helps to think of verbs as salads with different overall flavors depending on what ingredients you put in them, and think of the ingredients in verbs as verb meanings and tenses. When you add ingredients to a salad, they stay what they were – tomato stays a tomato, an olive stays an olive , but the overall combinations of tastes in the salad is changed each time we add something new.

In the same way, tense meaning always stay the same, but whatever tenses are included in a verb add a different meaning and change the overall combined meaning of the verb. If we include the continuous in a verb, we ADD that flavor to whatever mix of meanings would be there without it. This doesn’t change the other meanings, and the meaning of the continuous doesn’t change either. It’s just added.

Example I

“I live in Europe.”
“I am living in Europe.”

Verb in the 1st sentence: live
– time meaning: now
– who: any person other than the 3rd person singular (there’s no “s” at the end of the word – it could be the 1st or 2nd singular or plural or 3rd person plural)

Verb in the 2nd sentence: am living
– time meaning 1: now
– time meaning 2: temporary/coming to an end (the true meaning of the continuous)
– who: 1st person singular (am)

The important difference between these two is time meaning 2 in the second verb construction: that the activity of the verb is temporary. I can tell you as a native speaker that this is exactly the difference a native speaker would hear and understand. Both sentences are now but the second sentence has that added layer of time meaning. The lettuce doesn’t disappear when we add the tomatoes.

Example II

“Traditional English learning models had been being used for centuries before better alternatives to them were discovered in the second decade of the 21st century.”

Here we have a much more complex verb, which combines the past, the perfect, the continuous, and the passive to mean everything at once meant by each of them individually. This gives us the past perfect continuous passive, which means that:

1) we are talking about some period in the past (past),
2) the activity of the verb had a result at the moment being talked about (perfect),
3) the activity of the verb was temporary and had an ending sometime after the period being talked about (continuous), and
4) the noun that comes before our verb construction was the object of the action of the verb – it didn’t do the verb in other words, but the verb was done to it (passive).

It is more complex, but the same principle applies. We have added exactly as many tense forms as meaning that we wanted to include in our verb just as you add as many ingredients you want to flavor your salad. Try to do the same in your sentences and in how you understand what other speakers mean by theirs.

Table: The 30 Tense Combinations

      Present   Past
  Verb present simple   past simple
      She sings well.   She sang the song.
Verb + … Future future   future in the past
      She is going to sing tonight.   She was going to sing last night. 
Verb + … Perfect present perfect   past perfect
      She has sung in that theatre.   She had sung in that theatre before.
Verb + … Continuous present continuous   past continuous
      She is singing now.   She was singing when we entered the hall.
Verb + … Passive passive   past passive
      That song is sung often.   That song was sung often 20 years ago.
Verb + Future + … Perfect future perfect   future perfect in the past
      She will have sung the song by then.   She would have sung the song by then, but the schedule had been changed.
Verb + Future + … Continuous future continuous   future continuous in the past
      She is going to be singing when we arrive.   She was going to be singing when we arrived, but the schedule was changed.
Verb + Future + … Passive future passive   future passive in the past
      The song will be sung twice before intermission.   The song would be sung twice before intermission if the singer had a stronger voice.
Verb + Future + Perfect +… Continuous future perfect continuous   future perfect continuous in the past
      She is going to have been singing for hours when the performance is complete.    She was going to have been singing for hours by then, but her voice had gone out.
Verb + Future + Perfect +… Passive future perfect passive   future perfect passive in the past
      The song will have been   The song would have been sung twice before intermission, but the liberetto was changed.
Verb + Future + Perfect + Continuous… Passive future passive perfect continuous   future passive perfect continuous in the past
      The song is going to have been being sung for one minute when the chorus joins in.   The song was going to have been being sung for one minute when the chorus joined in, but they missed their cue.
Verb + Perfect +… Continuous perfect continuous   past perfect continuous
      She has been singing since she was very young.   She had been singing for years before she appeared for the first time on the stage.
Verb + Perfect +… Passive perfect passive   past perfect passive
      The song has been sung twice so far in this performance.   The song had been sung twice by intermission.
Verb + Perfect + Continuous +… Passive passive perfect continuous   past passive perfect continuous
      That song has been being sung since the middle ages.   The song had been being sung since the middle ages until it fell out of popularity and all memory.
Verb + Continuous +… Passive passive continuous   past passive continuous
      The song is being sung.   The song was being sung when we entered the hall.